Col [Extract]

One evening, early in September, we sat in the garden of the pub again — I forget quite how it happened. A cloudy golden light lay over the landscape like a soft varnish, transforming the harsh industrial buildings, the dark surface of the water, so that we might have become figures in some old painting. Birds called sleepily amongst the trees, or cried from the canal. My time at the café would soon be over, yet that evening it seemed that everything might last forever.

I had been talking about my family, about the unhappiness at home since my father had died, but also about my fear of going away, and of leaving the only places that I knew — things I had not spoken of to anyone before. Instead of replying to me, he slowly slipped off the watch he wore — a large, very plain one — and turned over the casing to show me a name engraved there on the back, and a date, very simple: ‘To Colin, from Jean, 1940’.

“Jeannie was my wife,” he said, very quietly.

I thought at first he spoke to distract me, to comfort me, as with a child about to burst into tears, but his eyes were suddenly the eyes of another person entirely. The long triangle of his chin seemed more irregular than ever, the peaks and points of his body seemed sharper.

“Oh — Col!” I said, in an instant far beyond my depth, feeling a responsibility I could not carry. “I — I’m so sorry — I didn’t know …”

Once again he did not reply to my words, but appeared to continue with his own thought, as if I had not interrupted him.

“She was a nurse …” he began, then stopped. I think he wanted to say more but did not have the means at his disposal.

I stammered stupidly, hardly knowing what to say. “Was it … in the war?”

He nodded.

“Please tell me,” I asked at last, moved, flattered, and immediately jealous. “Oh, please tell me about her, Col — if … unless …”

There was a long, slow silence; I think that silence was the element with which he was most comfortable. Col stood by the water, looking down at his dark reflection — maybe he glimpsed another figure there, beside his own. Eventually, his voice came even more slowly, more deeply than usual, as if the wheel of some heavy vehicle had become caught in soft ground. I think that perhaps he had not spoken of her to anyone before — but I believe that he wanted me to understand.

“When she got ill, she wouldn’t stop work, or take anything, she said she had to go on, they needed her to go on …”

He showed me an old worn and damaged photograph, taken from some deep pocket near his heart. A dark girl; dark eyes, with a fragile, unprotected look. She was already ill, the illness was in her eyes, in their expression, in the pain that spilled over into her face like shadow spilling upon leaves.